At Philly's zoo, elephants aren't being told to leave


PHILADELPHIA - There is so much to like about this town and, of course, the main thing is that it's home to the most perfect food in the world, the cheesesteak sandwich, which tastes so wonderful it can make you weep.

If you eat too many Philly cheesesteak sandwiches - I don't have a firm number on this, but let's say, oh, 20,000 over the course of a lifetime - you will eventually keel over and need an angioplasty.

But that is a small price to pay for the pleasure of thinly sliced steak and provolone smothered with fried onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers and mushrooms on fresh Italian bread. (Oh, look. I'm drooling all over the keyboard.)

This town also has a wonderful zoo, which I visited the other day to remember what a jewel a great zoo can be for a major metropolitan area.

In Baltimore, the zoo is in such sad shape, they're laying off workers and packing off their superstars, the elephants, to save a few bucks.

The governor talks about the state possibly helping the zoo with some cash, and he talks about putting the arm on some of Baltimore's rich guys to help out, too, and we'll see how all that plays out.

But in the meantime, the zoo looks like hell, rundown and on the decline, and every time I go there, I keep waiting for a bugler to sound taps.

It was sunny on Friday when I got to the Philadelphia Zoo, but the wind was howling and the temperature hovered around 40 and it felt like Manitoba in January.

Nevertheless, there were quite a few visitors and at least a half-dozen school groups wandering around. In the off-season, the zoo drops its ticket price from $14.95 to $9.95 for adults, and maybe that explained a lot of the moms there with their pre-schoolers. (Although maybe it didn't; curiously, the zoo also charges $9.95 for kids 2-11.)

As I am from Baltimore and extremely paranoid about one issue, as soon as I bought my ticket, I walked up to a zoo worker and said: "OK, let's not play any games here. Tell me you still have elephants in this place."

She said they did, but I didn't trust her. So I sprinted the 300 or so yards to the elephant exhibit, only to find that the two elephants had been moved inside, into the Pachyderm House, because of the cold weather.

I will tell you this: There is nothing sadder in this world than seeing elephants in an indoor cage.

At least when they're outside, they can soak up the sunshine and there's room for them to roam around and things for them to play with, old tires and logs and things of that nature.

Here, the elephants were just standing around on a concrete slab. Don't tell me elephants don't get bored or depressed, either. These two looked like they could use a few shovelfuls of Zoloft.

The Philadelphia Zoo is the oldest zoo in the country - Baltimore's is the third-oldest - and it's very well-maintained. As with all zoos, there is belt-tightening going on. But they sure haven't skimped on the paint or the trash pickup and the only superstar animals not on exhibit were the bears.

It has a first-rate Rare Animal Conservation Center, where you can see a Matschie's tree kangaroo and red-capped mangabey and bi-colored tamarin and other species that we've almost killed off from this Earth.

And it also has an excellent Reptiles and Amphibians House, which was the highlight of my visit. See, I am a big snake person - as long as the snakes are behind 2-inch glass and cannot kill me.

I don't want anything slithering under the kitchen table at breakfast or wrapping around my neck when I'm on the couch watching Letterman, is what I'm saying. And the Philly Zoo has an impressive collection of scary snakes: your Gabon vipers, timber rattlesnakes, king cobras, reticulated pythons, boas and a green anaconda the size of a fire hose.

There were also Gila monsters, crocodile monitors, alligators and enough other exotic creatures to make you swear off traveling to any place more tropical than, say, New Jersey.

Another highlight of any visit to the Philly Zoo is the Primate Conservation Center, a new building which arose after a terrible fire swept through the old one two years ago.

The orangutans, Mango and Tua, were uncharacteristically sedate when I was in there. "Usually they're very active, even hyper-active," one of the zoo workers said, recounting an incident in which one of the pair had even managed to flick the exhibit's lights on and off with a bamboo stick.

But the superstars here were clearly the four Western lowland gorillas: Chaka, a 390-pound male, Demba, the lone female, and two other males, Kimya and Michael. (Yes, Michael. You wonder what it does to his psyche, not having a cool African name like the other gorillas.)

The same zoo worker said it was initially hoped that Chaka and Demba might breed one day. But that hope is now dwindling, due to the stunning level of disinterest Demba has shown whenever Chaka noses around.

The sparks weren't exactly flying during my visit, either. Demba reclined regally the whole time in her lofty hammock while Chaka sat on the floor eating leaves or something.

Anyway, I had a great time at the Philadelphia Zoo. It's a wonderful place. And maybe the Baltimore Zoo can be a wonderful place again, if it gets its act together and some money rolls in.

Philly's a nice town, and so is Washington, where they have the world-famous National Zoo.

But nobody should have to drive that far to visit a quality zoo.

Baltimore deserves better than that.

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